Paleo diet: Just the facts

Last week, Jessica Kuzma, MS, RD, a local dietitian who has been following a paleo diet for several years, gave a talk at my weekly dietetic student seminar about paleo diet myths and facts. Kuzma got her degree from Colorado State University, where she studied under Loren Cordain (author of The Paleo Diet).
She said the top three myths about the paleo diet are:
  1. Paleo is Atkins (i.e., low carb and lots of bacon)
  2. There’s no source of calcium
  3. All-you-can-eat paleo cookies
First of all, she pointed out that there is no one paleo diet, because our paleolithic ancestors would have eaten differently depending on their ecological niche, their geography and what season it was. What all paleo diets would have had in common, she says, was that they would be based on minimally processed wild plants and minimally processed wild animals. The best any paleo diet follower can do today is to try to mimic that diet the best they can by focusing on:
  • Fish and seafood
  • Lean meat
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fresh fruit
That’s a far cry from the diet many people eat, in which the majority of calories come from refined sugars, grains, oils and dairy. Speaking of which, she pointed out that some current paleo followers think that you can eat lots of cookies if you “convert” each ingredient to a “paleo” ingredient. In fact, she said, sugar and fat never occurs together in nature, so “paleo cookies” aren’t really paleo.
Ultimately, nothing Kuzma said changed my view of the paleo diet, which is that it can be a very healthy diet if followed properly. For example, she cited an easy and favorite paleo meal as starting with a big bowl of greens and other veggies, then topping it with some type of protein, some nuts, maybe some avocado, and maybe having some sweet potato or another starchy vegetable (because the Paleo diet is lower carb, but not low carb). Hmmm…that’s pretty much what I ate for lunch this week….and I’m not paleo.
I still maintain that there is no one optimal diet (although I think the Mediterranean diet comes pretty close). A Paleo diet can be healthy, or not healthy, depending on what foods are chosen. Ditto for a vegan diet. I firmly believe that what all healthy diets have in common is a lack of processed foods and abundance of vegetables. After that, it’s largely up to what tastes right, and feels right, for each person.
Coincidentally, some of the same themes in Kuzma’s talk came up in a TED talk by archeological scientist and ancient diet expert Christina Warinner, “Debunking the paleo diet”: There is no one paleo diet, and the paleo diet gets some things   right, including the avoidance of processed foods. Of course, she feels the paleo diet gets some things wrong, too, like purporting the idea that our paleo ancestors didn’t eat grains, legumes or dairy. Let’s watch: